SchoolNet Director’s Report for 2007/8

Working together toward Interoperable solutions…no, seriously, I have not been given an implant!

Microsoft is trying to develop mutual respect and understanding between themselves and the Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) community, by using their Open Source laboratory at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Seattle, as a credible “change agency” on their vocal path to platform interoperability. I recently spent a couple of days on campus in Redmond with some 40 other FLOSS community developers, activists and bloggers at the Microsoft Technology Summit, an invite-only event where Microsoft brought together a select group of people from all over the world — key technology influencers — to learn about what the company is doing in its development labs and to preview advanced technology and new products, as well as to provide an environment for face-to-face dialogue and direct feedback. The FLOSS participants included strategists, several ICT-focused bloggers, journalists and analysts, as well as Dorothy Gordon and myself from the African FLOSS movement.

It became immediately clear that Sam Ramji, Microsoft’s director of technology platform strategy, is on a mission to take heat from free and open source activists on Microsoft’s behalf. Some of my esteemed FLOSS colleagues feel that Microsoft is never to be trusted, out to crush anyone who opposes them at any cost. Well, okay, I can appreciate the position of conventional FLOSS ideologues on Microsoft. I have a lot of them as friends; I drink with them on a fairly regular basis. It does look, however, that there are guys like Sam Ramji and members of his Microsoft Open Source team who genuinely want to make Microsoft products interoperate with Open Source and want to get a multitude of FLOSS projects going in their Open Source Lab. So in this same context I do think there is room for negotiation and productive discussion between SchoolNet, our government and industry partners in Namibia. And this is not an implant speaking . The big issue remains one of Sam Ramji and his team managing to change Microsoft’s on-the-ground sales personnel and their government clients to understand the bigger picture of Open Source and Interoperability, and for these Microsoft profit merchants to stop treating their relationship with African government like a (shotgun?) marriage of convenience (see Insight Magazine’s April 2008 issue).

source (http://www.insight.com.na) with photo credit to Marc Hofer.

What makes you a change agent? For many, it is doing what you love, and doing it well. That’s why SchoolNet believes in continuing to innovate a range of choices for developing and deploying FLOSS solutions in education and community. Especially now that things are financially very tight!

Based on an earlier gloomy prognosis of further long delays in the promulgation of the already long overdue Communications Bill, the Universal Service Fund of which was supposed to provide a substantial annual subsidy for SchoolNet to continue to provide affordable technical support and internet services to schools in Namibia, it is remains doubtful whether we can realistically continue to provide technical service support and internet access to schools beyond mid-2008. Especially since these schools represent the majority of SchoolNet’s debtors, and Ministry of Education (MoE) officials have thus far indicated an unwillingness to provide any kind of centralised funding support to SchoolNet – neither for international bandwidth nor for existing regional technical service support provided by SchoolNet in Ondangwa, Rundu and Gobabis.

With exception of special (solar) project schools and other small project proposals for which we have applied for funds, if we do not secure some kind of government subsidy, we shall need to reduce general Internet services to schools to a smart web-based service solution – likely sponsored by local corporations (e.g. Telecom, ITN or MTC through the XNet development alliance), and we will be forced to remove the direct expensive overheads of international bandwidth (paid to XNet and Telecom) and network administration by mid-2008. This IS a tough call and may put the ICT capacity of Namibia’s education sector back into the dark ages, but it is in the hands of the MoE, and may ultimately be the only way of getting them to take direct responsibility of ALL of Namibia’s school ICT needs – FLOSS and Microsoft, old and new, with and without internet.

Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (Agencia Espanola de Cooperacion International) – As part of a one-year project, this agency has provided us with funds (+Euros 168,000 =± N$ 1.8 million) to give three schools solar electricity and computer equipment to ensure that they along with 4 other (already solar electrified and resourced) schools in the Okongo cluster in Ohangwena can communicate and share information resources and tools by way of a local private wireless internet-based network with voice and other media. This non-commercial wireless network will be set up by expertise sourced through SchoolNet using a mixture of existing infrastructure (remains to be recovered from Telecom – masts and ISM-band 2.4 gHz wireless internet equipment) and new technology to be acquired through an invited tender process. SchoolNet expects to collaborate with South African, Danish, Indonesian and Canadian community organisations to develop a grassroots “best practices” wireless and alternative energy model to challenge the proposed long-term implementation plans of the ministries of education and mines and energy to empower remote communities in under served areas of Namibia. Watch this space for more news!

Green is the hot topic these days, and the concept is having an impact on the way people think about computer classrooms and information resource centres. Companies around the world are announcing ways to save energy and reduce costs by buying new hardware and services. Yet, there is little guidance on how you can take action to control energy costs at school. In the past, electricity has been treated as an overhead expense, like the cost of space or security. But with rising power costs and issues regarding reliability, supply, and capacity, electricity requires its own specific strategy. Projects which tackle performance optimization and cost reduction are a part of everyday best practices in nearly every area of business. So why not treat energy costs at remote rural schools in the same way?
If the outcome of this innovative project is positive, we can expect to see more funding from this and other agencies, for remote wireless solar powered access projects in Namibia.

SchoolNet further expects to focus on very specific projects –

the continued development and integration of relevant online Namibian curriculum content via SchoolNet’s web portal;
bursary-service exchange awards for young Namibian volunteers @ SchoolNet with information technology skills potential;
the development of human resource capacity to support a local Edubuntu operating system, applications and content management system;
direct NQA approved grassroots ICT technical training and international certification (e.g. Open-ICDL) for unemployed out-of-school youth at our Katutura facilities (and at other centres such KAYEC/Rossing Foundation in Ondangwa, and OTC in Gobabis).

I believe that SchoolNet can also help create local Innovation Centres on the back of community resource centres and public libraries to provide customers and partners in education with a comprehensive set of programmes and services. The goal of these centres would be to foster innovation and growth in local ICT economies. With appropriate seed funding, we can collaboratively focus on planning, developing and testing innovative energy conservative hardware, software content and communication solutions with an ecosystem made up of civil society, industry, education, and government partners. If successful in our bids for funding, we can expect to see small sums (± N$ 100,000 – N$ 1 million) awarded to SchoolNet to undertake these projects.

With several senior (and key) staff members leaving SchoolNet in 2007 and early 2008, the board of SchoolNet and I must take some considered executive decisions as to how we can expect to have the projects for which we have raised funds to be effectively managed to ensure successful outcomes. We have been asked to take up several research and policy implementation consultancies internationally, and I believe the time is right for us to spend more time doing these. Given our experience in ICT development, we are certainly interested to address the needs and aspirations of people in emerging-market countries, including those who are increasingly consuming computing technologies and services, as well as those for whom access to computing technologies remains largely out of reach. Founded on project planning and technical support experience, we are able to help others understand the social and educational contexts of technology, and help devise solutions for emerging and underserved markets, both in remote rural and urban environments.

In theory, free and open source software should have a direct appeal to anyone concerned with education, ethics and social issues. That is, any self-respecting civil servant. Yet, in practice, it rarely does. I have previously discussed the matter of ensuring that ICT deployment to schools under the MoE ICT Policy implementation plan remains 50% FLOSS, but look forward the day that Government embraces FLOSS as public sector policy. I can then retire from public life :-).

SchoolNet has been in the business of effectively deploying FLOSS server/thin client solutions to schools for several years now, but remains deeply concerned about the IT staffing shortages which are keeping many schools from realizing the full benefits of (any) technology inside and outside the classroom, as revealed recently in a USA-based survey. This survey of some 1,000 school and district leaders and IT administrators paints a stark picture of the barriers that technical support challenges pose to integrating technology effectively in education.

Nearly three out of four school leaders say they don’t have enough IT staff to support their needs effectively, according to the survey. Fifty-five percent of respondents said they can’t maintain their network adequately, 63 percent said they can’t plan for new technologies, and 76 percent said they have trouble implementing new technologies. Large corporations typically employ one support person for every 50 PCs, at a cost of $142 per computer, per year, in the USA. According to this model, a school region with 1,000 PCs in circulation would need a staff of 20 and an annual technical-support budget of $1.4 million. In the absence of any contemporary monitoring and evaluation programme in Namibia, I would reasonably argue that our statistics are much gloomier.

Clearly, lack of funding is a key stumbling block to effective school ICT support. A big obstacle is recruiting and retaining qualified ICT staff members; the salaries are simply not competitive enough. Under these circumstances I think it would be premature to ignore the technical volunteer model created by SchoolNet Namibia.

I have highlighted the important role that FLOSS can play as a practical instrument for development”, and I continue to argue that the “free and open” aspirations of FLOSS make it a natural component of the development agenda. We use FLOSS solutions as a part of our day-to-day operations, and with the exception of proprietary accounting software, most critical parts of SchoolNet’s technical infrastructure are implemented using FLOSS. But I again emphasize the critical role that consistent support plays in the success and sustainability of our ICT solutions,

Ultimately, all our software, hardware, content and energy choices should based upon the solution’s ability to achieve the best overall return on technology investments.

April 2008

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